Online shopping for
a project sponsored by Amazon
Data Analysis and Coding
According to the National Federation of the Blind , there are approximately 10 million legally blind people and visually impaired people living in the U.S. alone. Many people are unable to participate in some physical and digital aspects of life due to their conditions. Therefore, the world needs to be more attentive in recognizing how platforms and services should be designed to allow blind users' participation easily. As a team, we are interested in opportunities to create technology solutions with utility and elegance for blind people.
number visually impaired people in the U.S.
We recognize that one of the benefits of the digital platform is the ease of online shopping mobility, which has become even more important in today's world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since online shopping platforms provide an easy and quick way of shopping wide range of items from groceries to clothing. Therefore, our goal is to learn how blind people adapt to shopping environments and focus on their experiences from their perspectives.
We want to understand visually impaired people’s online shopping and their emotional context, such as what gives them joy or frustrates them. We aim to recognize not only the barriers that blind people encounter, but also recognize the motivations that blind people have in common, and provide an alternative pleasant online shopping experience as our ultimate goal.
How might we provide a tractable and pleasant experience with succinct product information to blind people while shopping intentionally*?
*shopping with items in mind, on purpose.
I completed some secondary research on blind people’s use of the Internet and assistive technologies to gain an understanding of how we can proceed with our formative research. These research and articles we read informed us in several points, including:
How do blind people complete tasks both online and physically?
What kind of issues do blind people face in online platforms?
What kind of tools are currently available for blind people?
According to the CDC, blindness and vision impairment are one of the top 10 disabilities in the U.S. amongst adults over 18 years old* and the numbers are expected to rise approximately to 9 million blind and visually impaired adults in the U.S. by 2050**. As the number of blind and visually impaired people is increasing, some of their challenges; such as reading, transporting, shopping, preparing meals, and attending classes, are being brought to light.
*Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2017). The Burden of Vision Loss.
**Varma, R., Vajaranant, T. S., Burkemper, B., Wu, S., Torres, M., Hsu, C. & McKean-Cowdin, R. (2016). Visual impairment and blindness in adults in the United States: Demographic and geographic variations from 2015 to 2050.. JAMA ophthalmology, 134(7), 802-809.
With the growth of technology, blind and visually impaired people can now complete most of the challenging tasks online with the tools that support their computer usages, such as screen-readers and Braille keyboards. As one of the solutions, online shopping activities can help blind people decrease their need for traveling and carrying items, as well as ease their experience when selecting and evaluating products*.
Blind people often have specific requirements and concerns while shopping online. For example, research shows that when shopping online, blind people want to appear as “ordinary” and want to purchase items that are visually “normal”*. However, it is hard for them to evaluate such information without a sighted person’s help, as image alt-tags and descriptions are not often definitive**. Another thing that is important to blind people while shopping online is the ease of navigation*. Screen-readers can adapt to most websites for blind people to browse easily, as long as the websites obey the accessibility guidelines when developed***. However, a lot of websites are currently discounting their blind users and increasing barriers to accessible online shopping***.
Even though there is a big gap in accessible online shopping, unfortunately, there are only a limited number of research cases that have been conducted on understanding blind and visually impaired people’s online shopping opportunities and challenges, which is why we wanted to examine this topic..
*Guanhong L., & et. (2019). “I Bought This for Me to Look More Ordinary”: A Study of Blind People Doing Online Shopping. CHI ’19. 372, 1–11.
**Petrie, H. & et. (2005). Describing images on the web: A survey of current practice and prospects for the future. City University London.
***Hackett, S., & et. (2005). A retrospective look at website accessibility over time. Behaviour & Information Technology, 24:6, 407-417.
With the information we gathered from secondary research and articles, we gained a general understanding of how blind people use the Internet. With that knowledge, I spoke with experts in this field to expand our understanding of blind people’s online shopping behaviors. I have conducted four Subject Matter Expert (SME) interviews, with those who have previously worked in the area of blind people and accessible technology design. The key takeaways from those interviews are:
Blindness is a spectrum, narrow down your target user.
Do not assume how blind people use technology.
Do no exclude those, who have low technology proficiency.
Examine current accessibility guidelines.
Start talking with blind users as soon as possible.
We researched the space of assistive technologies for blind people that helps them with everyday tasks. More specifically, we reviewed services and products that provide virtual assistance to blind people and allow them to adopt technologies into the accessible-friendly structure. We then compared the currently existing products and services with our design problem in four different categories:
An app that connects blind people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through live video calls.
similar audience & circumstances
An app that brings blind users with trained agents to remotely assist them with Internet tasks that could be shopping
similar audience & circumstances
An AI app that uses the device camera to identify people and objects, and describe them to people with visual impairment.
similar audience & circumstances
A shopping website that works well with screen-reader shortcuts to support people with disabilities.
similar audience, goals & enablers
A screen-reader program that allows blind and visually impaired users to read the screen.
similar audience & enablers
A virtual assistant AI technology that offers customers an intuitive way to interact with the technology.
How do blind people navigate on online shopping platforms, compare products, and return items?
What kind of products do blind people tend to purchase online vs in-store?
How do blind people assess shopping platforms’ accessibility?
Support & Tools
What tools are available/missing for blind people while shopping online?
How can we support blind people while they shop online?
How is the process of shopping for familiar products different from exploring new products?
How do blind people browse and explore products that they have never purchased before?
With the light of the literature review and SME interviews, we decided to focus on the following research questions to develop a deep understanding of blind people’s current online shopping experience, preference, and pain points.
Participants & Recruitment
I recruited our participants by reaching out to some associates and faculty, as well as to nonprofit organizations that work and support blind communities; such as the UW Disability Center, Seattle Deafblind Service Center, and American Council of the Blind.
We ended up having 9 initial participants for the first part of our study, where I directed interviews and storytelling practices. All of our participants identified as totally blind with no vision, and have experienced shopping online previously. I then recruited 5 new participants for the Remote Moderated Study, where I asked our completely blind participants if they would feel comfortable to share their screens with me to show their process of shopping.
Our participants’ age ranged from 19 to 60 since we wanted to understand if age had any effect on online shopping behaviors. Additionally, we did not have any technical knowledge requirements other than being able to use the Internet, as we also did not want to exclude participants due to the level of technical proficiency.
I designed two different research methods to gather data from our participants.
a) Phone Interviews with Directed Storytelling
We interviewed participants on their usage of the Internet and shopping websites. We asked about their experience and stories with online shopping websites whether it is for grocery shopping or retail item shopping. The goal was to collect first-hand anecdotal data of blind people’s experiences, opinions, and attitudes around online shopping. We also wanted to identify any advancements and frustrations that exist within the current technologies that we asked our participants to reflect at times when they could complete online shopping tasks successfully and unsuccessfully. This helped us to also analyze their expectations and objectives.
b) Remote Moderated Study
During this study, we asked participants to share their screens with us through an accessible-friendly video conferencing tool, Zoom, and requested them to do online shopping exercises as we observed their patterns. We watched our participants steps as they browsed and selected both familiar and unfamiliar items. Our goal was to gain a deep understanding of blind people’s online shopping behaviors and the tools that use and pinpoint any missing features that could ease their process of online shopping.
Remote Moderated Study screenshot
I gathered all of our data on database organization tools such as Airtable and Excel for us to be able to easily access all the information we received. I then organized the collected data on an online whiteboard platform, Miro, as I color-coded the collected information. I compiled our observations and insights into relevant categories and consequential relationships based on shared intent, purpose, or problems.
Miro board screenshot
Most blind people are intentional shoppers, who are not interested in browsing items without purpose or taking website’s recommendations as reference.
I ask for recommendations from my son. I don’t trust the ones that websites show, it is just to sell more things. - P3
I usually shop when I know what I need to buy. And it is a very fast process. - P7
Familiarity with items and websites during shopping is crucially important to blind customers since the website configuration and information hierarchy costs them great efforts to build trust with new products.
I prefer shopping for brands and items that I am familiar with. It is more comfortable. - P4
One time the screen-reader was only reading the title of the website which caused issues with my purchase. - P1
Blind people use screen readers to skim websites through only reading headlines and key elements, such as price and ratings, for efficient browsing.
The way I approach a webpage is literally by jumping around the headers as quickly as possible to do what I want to get done. First thing I look at (in a product) is the rating, brand and the size and price. -P5
Picture alt tags weren’t helpful as they are irrelevant. They’re generic image names. -P3
Conversational assistance is valuable to blind people especially when they need to perform tasks quickly or encounter some issues online.
Alexa is handy when playing music or reading a recipe. But navigation on Alexa is very frustrating because you cannot control the results you want to know. - P2
Buying with voice is easy and fast. unless the item you’re looking for is the first result.- P7
Blind users prefer having control over the information hierarchy that they access. Therefore, in our design solution, users should be able to control which information to consume according to their needs.
We need to build trust with our users about their identity, thoughts, and conversation. Our design solution should be clear and transparent about protecting our users’ data and privacy.
Effortless experiences are those that require little or no effort to decipher or learn. They employ plain language, familiar controls, and clear hierarchy to guide users to predictable outcomes. With that, our solution should reduce steps and eliminate the struggle.
Pleasant experiences are desirable and valuable. Therefore, our design’s user experience should be sensually pleasing, which includes qualities such as balance, clear hierarchy, embraced patterns and harmony.
Implement tools for blind people to customize website hierarchies according to their needs and preferences to compare products efficiently.
Facilitate sighted people to create meaningful and descriptive image alt tags to assist blind people’s understanding of a product.
Provide information exchange platforms to build trust between blind users, products, and shopping services.
Integrate NLP short commands to currently existing tools as a personal assistant that helps blind people complete online shopping tasks effortlessly.
Develop methods or features on existing platforms to shop for staple items with fewer commands or page switching.
1. Conduct further literature reviews to gain a better understanding of the currently existing accessibility research and products.
2. Brainstorm and discuss design ideas to build tools and services that help blind users while shopping online.
3. Revisiting the SMEs to get their feedback on our research and their guidance on how we should proceed.
4. Talk with blind users to evaluate possible design solutions.